Why lug laptops, a memory stick fits into your pocket

Most people who have used a PC or Mac have heard of USB, usually associated with plugging in a printer or a memory stick. Yet few folk know more than the word itself, and the fact that what they plug into the PC using the USB port usually works right away.

USB stands for Universal Serial Bus, a standard for connecting all sorts of hardware to your PC or Mac without opening the case. Before USB, adding hardware was much more difficult and usually required the user (or a trained technician) to open the computer’s case, something that few people aside from experts wanted to attempt.

The arrival of the USB standard meant that you can add almost any peripheral to a PC easily and quickly. You can plug in printers, scanners, keyboards, mice and many other useful types of hardware, the computer will recognize them, and use them almost immediately.

USB comes in two speeds, beginning with the older and slower 1.1 standard. Older PCs and Macs run their USB ports at this slower speed, transferring data at about 1.5 megabytes per second. This is too slow for playing back full DVD resolution video, or transferring files from a portable drive at acceptable speeds. Hence the development of USB 2.0, which can transfer data at a much faster speed of 60 megabytes per second, allowing streaming video and high-speed data transfer from portable devices.

Now USB is becoming even more flexible, with the recent introduction of the U3 standard. This standard was developed to help take advantage of the explosion of portable USB storage in the form of high-capacity memory sticks, often called flash memory drives or USB keys. With these devices now being available in sizes averaging 8 or more gigabytes, they have become quite useful for carrying around important data such as documents, videos, audio files and more, all accessible from any PC with a USB port.

The U3 standard changes the nature of a standard portable USB drive by adding several capabilities to the drive. Firstly, when plugged into a PC running Windows 2000, XP or Vista, the software on the drive can be ‘launched’ directly from the drive. It doesn’t have to be installed on the host PC. This means that if the drive is of a decent size, users can carry around many different software applications that they might use daily, and run them on any PC they plug the U3 drive into. This means that instead of lugging a laptop from office to office, for example, an employee could simply carry a single tiny U3 drive in a pocket that contained office software, e-mail and web browsers and a host of other applications as well as all their important documents and spreadsheets. They could walk up to any PC with a recent Windows OS, plug in the USB key and be working immediately without waiting. It’s that simple.

Best of all, most of the major applications for U3 are freely downloadable from U3.com, and those that aren’t free are very inexpensive. It’s possible to easily configure a U3-capable USB key to become your own ‘Portable PC’ that is customized to your personal needs when traveling.

Recently, Sandisk (the creators of the U3 format) and Microsoft announced that by the end of 2008, U3 will be replaced by a new format called Startkey. Designed for Windows PCs, Startkey will allow a user to plug a USB key into any compatible PC and have a customized workspace running in a few seconds. Being able to virtually run their own PC on any computer running Windows XP or later means users would no longer have to leave their customized working environment at home or the office; they can take it with them in a pocket to use anywhere they go.

With portable storage media getting cheaper by the gigabyte all the time, it may soon be possible to carry most of a user’s important files around with them, without the weight of a laptop dragging them down. Although some would say that laptops aren’t all that heavy nowadays, nobody would argue the difference in weight between one of those and a USB key. Smartphones are still very limited in battery life and PDAs seem to have fallen out of favour. So, StartKey may become the gadget of choice much sooner than you think.